UnitedHealth report: These are the healthiest states for seniors

Utah is the healthiest state for seniors this year, earning high marks for low prevalence of smoking and excessive drinking, according to a new report from the United Health Foundation.

The philanthropic arm of UnitedHealth Group issued its annual America's Health Rankings senior report Tuesday morning, which highlights state-specific performance across a slew of measures as well as progress, or lack thereof, on several key health issues facing seniors.

Top-ranking Utah scored highly across socioeconomic measures, clinical measures and health outcomes. However, the state data show several areas for improvement, including fall rates and low numbers of geriatric providers.

These states round out the top five healthiest: Vermont, Minnesota, Connecticut and Colorado. Mississippi places 50th on the list and is joined by Louisiana, Kentucky, West Virginia and Oklahoma as the least healthy states for seniors.

The researchers found that while Mississippi saw low fall rates and a low prevalence of severe housing concerns, it faced high rates of physical inactivity, high early death rates and high risk for social isolation.

The report did find that, overall, the number of seniors reporting high health status is on the rise. In 2019, 41% of seniors reported high health status, meaning they perceive their own health as quite good. That increased in 2020 to 43.5%, according to the report. 

That's a record high for the report since its 2011 inception and a significant hike following a series of declines that began in 2016. In 2011, 38.4% of seniors reported high health status.

An area that remains a significant challenge is mental and behavioral health, according to the report. The number of seniors reporting frequent mental distress, which is 14 or more days of self-reported poor mental health in a month, increased 8% between 2011 and 2020.

This trend held across different income categories in the study. Frequent mental distress increased 47% among seniors making between $50,000 and $74,999 per year and by 41% among seniors making $75,000 or more.

Rhonda Randall, executive vice president and chief medical officer at UnitedHealthcare employer and individual, said on a briefing with reporters that the findings are "sobering."

"We saw them before the pandemic," she said. "They got worse throughout the pandemic, and that really is a call to action."